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Herb Rothschild Jr.: The Christmas spirit

The Christmas holidays impose on my consciousness when I begin receiving gift catalogues in our mailbox. But their spirit enters me when I chance to hear strains of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

If your child took ballet lessons, as my daughter did, you can share my experience. No matter how small the dance school, it staged The Nutcracker before Christmas. And chances are that the first time your child performed publicly was as a mouse or a snowflake or a page to the Prince.

My wife and I like dance, and frequently attended performances of the Houston Ballet. We didn’t go to any of its annual performances of The Nutcracker, though, until the year my oldest son and his wife brought their two daughters over from Louisiana when it was being staged. It was an opportunity I had long anticipated.

Mei and Ainsley are close in age. On that occasion they were about 10, a wonderful age for girls. My wife took them out to buy velvet dresses, one black, one burgundy, white lace collars and patent leather shoes, de rigueur dress for this dressy occasion. Thus attired, they entered the dazzling Wortham Theater, with its sweeping staircase up to the grand lobby, then on to our seats and the performance. They loved it. I loved it because they did.

I’m disinclined to make judgments about the way the Christmas holidays are celebrated in our country, or to tell people how they should celebrate. The commercial dimension looms ever larger and many decry it, arguing that the spiritual has been overwhelmed by the material. But the spirit won’t manifest itself simply because we don’t allow the material to preoccupy us.

Earlier cultures told their members what life’s meanings are and how to appropriate them. Long ago that applied to Christmas, but not now. Even for those who call themselves Christians, the admonition “Put Christ back in your Christmas” is unlikely to bring the desired results. As with every aspect of our lives, so with the holidays we are on our own in finding meaning. And there is no guarantee that we will. People speak of holiday depression, but the holidays aren’t the cause, only the occasion.

Actually, for most people, the spirit finds expression in and through the material — a shared meal, a thoughtful gift for a dear one. For me, what is special about Ashland’s annual Abundance Swap is not its repudiation of material excess, which spurred Jeff Golden to establish it 14 years ago. My attendance doesn’t deter me from buying other gifts. Rather, I cherish the Abundance Swap as an occasion when Ashland manifests its extraordinary social conscience in and through a particular kind of material exchange.

Music is the least material of vehicles, and therefore perhaps the one best suited to carry the spirit. For a surprisingly large number of people, a sing-along performance of Handel’s Messiah is the highlight of their season. For more, it’s outdoor caroling. For still others, it’s the music in their churches. All these experiences retain their vitality no matter how much the starting time of Black Friday is moved forward.

I suspect that what is finally determinative is not so much the event, but the memories it summons. Nothing can overcome the loneliness of lovelessness except experiences of loving and having been loved in return. If no aspect of the holidays recalls such experiences, the holly and the mistletoe aren’t going to hold out the promise of renewal amidst the winter chill. We’ll have to search elsewhere.

Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.